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Have been a fan of Director Lawrence Ah Mon's earlier work, especially his neo-realist approach to story-telling exposing the underbelly of HK's lost generation, beginning with the critically acclaimed GANGS (1988, Ah Mon had the capability to create create conversation and social impact in Hong Kong in spite of GANGS (1988)not having any commercial appeal nor did it seem to aim to entertain the masses.
In the years that following the success of GANGS, Ah Mon became a director known for his ability to integrate realism (almost in a documentary approach with some of the better work) into commercial films that dealt with topics and subjects that reflected the darker sides of HK's history, and with films such as LEE ROCK (1991), SPACKED OUT(2008), and most recently BESIEGED CITY (2008), these are some of his finest work in my opinion.
Although Ah Mon's work in between may have had bigger budgets and starring some of the biggest movies stars in Hong Kong at the time, the more commercial ventures showed a lack of depth compared to his better work on films that aimed to highlight social problem in Hong Kong. Even with some of the more commercially successful films, they came across as generic and formulaic - DEALER/HEALER in parts fall into that category.
First act of the film sets up the story not unlike Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN America (1984), or John Woo's BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990), which the latter obviously take inspiration from the former. This is also the weaker part of the movie in that the scenes are cut overly tight, likely to reduce duration of the movie, but resulting in the first 2 acts coming across as if it's a movie trailer, instead of allowing scenes to breathe and characters to be developed.
The visuals to the movie are stunning, and much of it can be credited to the excellent CG effects to bring back 1960's Hong Kong in uncanny realism - to the point of overshadowing the actual story and characters by emphasizing on the history of Hong Kong's past, especially the subculture of the underbelly that was the Kowloon Walled City - once a part of Hong Kong even the law could not successfully interfere with all the vices that made Kowloon City the legendary district that often became the central character to movies, dramas, and fiction in the past 20 years. *since the "walls" were finally torn down in the 1990's.
The top-billing ensemble cast (led by Sean Lau, Louis Koo, Gordon Lam, and a surprisingly effective performance by Zhang Jin) delivers on-mark performances. The weakness of the editing in the first half of the movie limits the characters and the story engage or develop effectively, and most of the 1st and 2nd act audience will find see the main characters in the story become mere plot elements that serve to supporting an attempt to retell the history of Kowloon City, and HK's less-privileged during the period often referred to ad are part of the "BENEATH THE LION'S ROCK" generation.
Where the first 2 acts to the movie focus too much on HK nostalgia, which makes it hard for the characters to develop, the 3rd act makes up for it - Act 1 & 2 have viewers left to be confused whether the film is meant as a history lesson starring well-known actors, or that there is an actual original narrative/story we are to be engaged and to be entertained by.
As the story moves to the present, and comes out of the trappings of flash-backs and actors in bad wigs (someone that's become a HK cinema convention and common device to depict characters in their younger years, which rarely works except to generate unintended laughs), the story/movie takes a turn from a historical recount of HK's past, to an engaging story not unlike John Woo's earlier successful crime films that emphasized on brotherhood and the underdog struggle against establishment, rules, traditions, and impossible odds. Action star Zhang Jin completely steals the show in scenes that has nothing to do with action and fighting, but shows the vulnerability of a man who has accepted all the elements and hardship life has dished out and knocked against a simpleton whose ambition was just to hang-on and get by.
As an added twist that looks inspired by series such as CSI and COLD CASE, we see Ah Mon employing devices to story-telling that reminds us of some of Andrew Lau's work with Felix Chong and Alan Mak (INFERNAL AFFAIRS).
All in all, the pockets of solid performances and compelling story telling don't save the film from being less than what it could have been. The inconsistencies in narrative approach make the film less a Lawrence Ah Mon signature piece that made GANGS (1988), SPACKED OUT (2000), and BESIEGED CITY (2009) iconic examples of HK neo-realist Indy favorites (similar to some of the earlier work by directors FRUIT CHAN, and ANN Hui). Viewers who are not familiar with HK nostalgia will not be compelled by the realism of the scenes that brought back HK's most cherished years. Yet what is nice to see for fans of Ah Mon's past work, along with John Woo's earlier crime-films, is that old tricks still work when they are done well - this could have been a great film if the movie allowed scenes to breathe and characters to more appropriately fleshed out. It could have been a new milestone that pays homage to crime films that made HK the Hollywood EAST that it once was.
But then, that I have hopes producers will also see, and look forward to other upcoming attempts by some of the directors who helped to make HK gangster films legendary and a breed apart for other industries to be inspired by.
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